If the first Test was one sided, England were quick to say that such underperformance wouldn’t be repeated in Antigua, and they would be a side transformed. Perhaps it was the necessary self-confidence any team ought to have in itself, their ability to match and exceed the opponent. But perhaps instead it spoke of a wider hubris about where they sit in the cricket hierarchy, an inability to accept that they were being outplayed by a team who, in these conditions at least, were simply better than them.
Certainly England didn’t appear to have learned anything, nor did they change their approach with the bat. The same carefree certainty that they could dominate from the off, the same puzzled confusion that it didn’t just fail to work, but instead actually got worse, as scrambled minds struggled to deal with what was happening to them. If one thing has marked England out over recent years, it is an inability to think on their feet and respond to changing circumstances and a different challenge in front of them. Their difficulties faced with pace have become clear, their technical limitations dealing with a quick pitch that bounces even more so.
To a considerable extent it shouldn’t be surprising. The first class game is confined to the margins of the season with tracks that are either green or tired, the home Tests are played all too often on turgid surfaces where the ball rarely gets above knee level without additional effort, while the bowlers focus on getting swing rather than seam, and high pace is neutralised. The lack of genuine quick bowlers in the domestic game isn’t a coincidence, it is a product of the system and the conditions. It always, without exception, is that way. And they have become adept at playing in the conditions created at home for them, while appearing lost when faced with something different.
The misreading of the first Test selection smacked of a structure that expected the pitches in the Caribbean to be as they had been on previous tours – a failure of intelligence gathering if nothing else, as well as one of judgement. The second Test put that right to an extent, but the West Indies smelled blood by that point. No longer was it a case of sneaking a 1-0 lead and preparing dead pitches to hold on to it. This team had England on toast, and were going to demonstrate it again. From here, 3-0 looks far more likely than 2-1.
The selection of Keaton Jennings alone indicated England’s expectations, a player who has had modest success on slow surfaces, and looks technically short on anything else. That was changed here for Joe Denly, but expecting him to put right the problems in the England batting order was always optimistic to say the least.
The quartet of West Indies bowlers tore into England from the start, and it was abundantly obvious that England couldn’t cope with it. Certainly the pitch wasn’t the best, but it’s not hard to imagine previous generations of England batting line ups handling that rather better, and even the much maligned late 1990s version would have attempted to graft rather than hit their way out of trouble.
The folly of the approach was shown by how the West Indies batted in reply. Stuart Broad is one of the more thoughtful observers on the game in the England ranks, but while he was correct that England didn’t have a great deal of luck, there was unquestionably a difference in the chosen line of attack and how they were trying to get the batsmen out. The home team targeted the stumps, England bowled in the channel outside, passing the bat repeatedly for sure, but also limiting the kinds of dismissals possible.
Broad, by far the most impressive of the England bowlers, slightly gave the game away after day two, suggesting that the batsmen had indicated fuller deliveries were easier to score off, but that he felt they should have pushed it up further anyway. Once again, it’s about run prevention rather than wicket-taking as the central mindset, and while Broad is often guilty of that too, with him at least it feels that his mentality is to want to bowl people out. The spell on the second day had all the feeling of being on the cusp of one of those irrestible ones, and that the West Indies survived it is deeply to their credit. That’s not to say for a second that bowlers with 1,000 Test wickets between them don’t know what they’re doing, but there is a default to fall back on, and England do it repeatedly, and when it doesn’t work, it’s striking.
Jonny Bairstow had explained his first innings thrash by saying he never felt in on the pitch. Understandable perhaps given it was the first, early sighter. It was far less so second time around after Darren Bravo had provided such an object lesson in crease occupation. But here again, England were guilty of millionaire shots – expansive drives to straight, good length balls, flailing furiously at anything outside off stump.
Of the top order only Root could be said to have been got out, making him doubly unlucky after the unplayable one he got in the first innings. The others were all guilty of playing T20 shots in a Test match, or leaving a straight one – another indication of mental struggle.
England were certainly beaten by the better team, and there is no disgrace in that. There is in the manner of doing so. Hidebound, narrow minded and incapable of either considering or applying a different method. If they refuse to do so, that is poor. If they are incapable of doing so, that is worse. For it speaks to the very structure of the game the ECB have administered, with few obvious alternatives out there. Cause and effect. Always cause and effect.
As for the West Indies, if this is to prove the start of some kind of revival, however modest, that is cause for celebration. Cricket has too few teams to be casual about losing any more (ICC take note), and the manner of their victory and their style of play spoke to a deep pride in who they are and how they play. The clear burning anger at the perceived lack of respect given to them suggests as much. They have been a joy to behold, and if nothing else, the genuine and slightly bewildered delight of the locals is heart warming.
England have it all, money, a system that could be honed to produce the best that is possible. A deliberate strategy of sidelining that in pursuit of filthy lucre brings us to where we are now. It isn’t that England are a terrible team, but they are a one dimensional one, and one incapable of adapting. The express strategy of focusing on the one day forms of cricket is bearing fruit there, but at the expense of Tests. And when Anderson and Broad call it a day, the naked exposure is going to be even more obvious.
Results like this aren’t catastrophic in themselves, but they are the canary in the mine. The ECB approach has been to euthanise the canary rather than investigate the gas. And that’s why things won’t improve. Get used to it.